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Special Report: States of Debate: Seeking Justice in San Francisco

Superintendent Carlos Garcia is an outspoken leader for students of all colors and capabilities.
Superintendent Garcia is surrounded and hugged by students at Miraloma Elementary School. He tries to visit the district's schools and spend time with students twice a week.

Carlos A. Garcia, born in Chicago to Mexican immigrants, learned about pride in his heritage when he was in kindergarten. As a student at Magnolia Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District in the late 1950s, Garcia came home one day with a name tag on his shirt. His father asked, "Who is Charlie?" Garcia said Charlie was a boy at school who caused some trouble. His father visited the school the following day to ask the teacher and principal about this boy. When he was told his son's name was "Charlie," a poor attempt at an Americanized version of "Carlos," his father proudly said that his son's name was not Charlie, but Carlos Arturo Garcia Bustamante Rodriguez Aguirre de la Fuente de Velar, his full name.


Ironically, the challenges Garcia faced then carried him throughout his youth and career to where he is now, the chief of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). Prior to his post in San Francisco, Garcia had been a school superintendent for 11 years in other districts. In 2005, he left district leadership and became vice president of National Urban Markets at McGraw- Hill Education. His job was designed to help large school districts improve student performance through excellence in instruction, curriculum and assessment.

Not long after his new career started, a hiring firm approached Garcia to return to district administration. In July 2007, Garcia became SFUSD's chief, returning to the district where he had been a middle school principal two decades ago. "I made more money at McGraw-Hill," Garcia says. "And most people already know I'm crazy. They couldn't understand why I'd give up a cushy, great job. To be honest, I like the fight; I like the stress; I like the challenges; I like solving problems. And I'm a big believer in social justice." By "social justice," Garcia means racial equity. He points to AP or honors classes and how there are more Asian and white students in those classes compared to minority students. "I grew up with kids who were just as smart or smarter than me, and they are not alive anymore [largely due to drugs and gang violence]. It's a commitment I have to making a difference. I am very blessed and lucky to get to this point. I wanted to create that [opportunity] for every child. And this is the best work I've ever done in my life."

A League of His Own

When the board of education in San Francisco was searching for a new superintendent after former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman left in June 2006 and interim superintendent Gwen Chann was in place, they found Garcia's passion and educational expertise attractive qualities. They hired him in July 2007. "It's hard to find someone who is both highly knowledgeable about education, curriculum, instruction and the budget and also an incredibly passionate leader," says Jane Kim, school board president.

But what set him apart was his ability to communicate to various groups of people, something he has done most of his life. It seems so basic, Kim adds, but not all superintendents do it well. "Carlos is strong in community outreach," Kim says. "He's very popular in San Francisco, and even when he goes into communities that are not happy with the school district, they love Carlos."

Superintendent Garcia helps students at William De Avila Elementary School cut a ribbon to kick off the Chinese Immersion Program on the first day of school last fall.

He has carried that trait to communicate with board members, too, she says. "We definitely disagree [at times], but Carlos is always open to communicating and not divisive," Kim says. "Just communicating takes care of a lot of potential fractious relationships that can develop. It's a very supportive board and superintendent relationship." Kim adds that Garcia empowers staff members. "Another plus for Carlos is that he can attract good leaders with a lot of initiative and give them autonomy," she says.

Defining Moments

Garcia was born in Chicago, but his parents shortly thereafter moved back to their homeland of Mexico for a few years. When Garcia was almost 5, his family moved to Los Angeles, where his parents worked in factories and Garcia was immersed in the barrio, a tough neighborhood that had high poverty and crime. Although Garcia was not a "gangbanger" himself, his friends were.

His potentially rough life started to change when he was in seventh grade at Wilmington Junior High School. Student government advisor Rita Steele saw potential in him and told him he was a leader, pointing out that he was friendly with everyone, from "tough kids" to special education students. "No one else does that," she told him. She put his name on a student body president ballot, and he was voted in. "It changed my life," he recalls now. "I had to be a leader."

At Banning High School, Garcia had the benefit of another mentor, guidance counselor Helen Monahan, who pushed him to achieve. Instead of settling for shop classes that mostly poor and minority students took, Garcia took college-prep courses.

He also led walkouts at school, one in which students protested the dilapidated conditions of the old high school building when schools for the "rich kids" were new and clean. And he fondly remembers when teachers considered him "a pain in the rear for asking too many questions in class."

After high school, he attended Claremont Men's College, where he pursued political science in preparation for becoming an attorney. But in his last semester, a local high school teacher hired him as an instructional aide as he worked on his senior project. "I decided in my last semester that maybe I would be a high school teacher," he says.

He graduated from Claremont with a bachelor of arts degree in political science. In 1976, he obtained a master's degree in education from Claremont Graduate School, and in 1979 an administrative credential in educational administration from California State University at Fullerton.

Garcia reminisces with the custodian and the office manager at Horace Mann Middle School about the time he was school principal roughly 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, Garcia started his career in 1975, teaching social studies and coaching the track team at Nogales High School in La Puente, Calif. In 1977, he went to Chaffey Joint Union High School District in Ontario, Calif., to be a teacher and project specialist in charge of Title I programs. Then Garcia went to Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Watsonville, Calif., where he was vice principal and principal at two different schools.

In 1988, he was brought to SFUSD to be a turnaround principal at Horace Mann Middle School, one of the lowest-achieving schools in the district. Within three years, Garcia turned it into a national Blue Ribbon Schools Program recipient for demonstrating dramatic gains in student achievement.

In 1991, he became assistant superintendent at Fresno (Calif.) Unified School District, and then held superintendent positions at Sanger (Calif.) Unified School District, Fresno, and then Clark County (Nev.) School District, the nation's fifth largest school district with 300 schools and more than 280,000 students.

Garcia with his daughter, Asia, a physical education instructor, his wife, Gail, and his son, Ferrari. "It would have been cheaper to buy one," Garcia says with a laugh about his son.

Under his direction at Clark County schools, math and reading instruction improved and the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses tripled. He also helped unite Nevada's 17 county school districts, which led to greater educational funding throughout the state. Garcia, who is president of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, has been honored with various awards over the years. He was named the 2005 Nevada Superintendent of the Year by the Nevada Association of School Administrators. This past spring, he received the Association of California School Administrators' highest award. The Ferd Kiesel Memorial Distinguished Service Award is for those who make a significant contribution to public education.

Giant Leaps

When Garcia saw that special education students were outperforming black students on assessment tests in math in 2007, he knew he had to step in. And even though San Francisco public schools, where white students comprise 10 percent of the student body, had a greater percentage of students achieving proficiency than any other large urban district in the state, an achievement gap existed.

Garcia explains that achievement gaps are the "greatest social justice/civil rights issue" facing the United States. "There cannot be justice for all without closing this gap," he stated when he took over the district. Thus, he spearheaded the district's strategic plan, titled Beyond the Talk. The three main goals of the plan focus on closing the achievement gap and diminishing the "predictive power of demographics."

The goals include:

  • Access and equity—Making social justice a reality by ensuring every student has access to quality teaching and learning.
  • Achievement—Ensuring that every student graduates from high school ready for college and career in the 21st century.
  • Accountability—Keeping promises to students and families and enlisting everyone in the community to help.

SFUSD started using a results-oriented approach and encouraged site-level innovation by developing balanced scorecards throughout the district. Each school site, district department and many community organizations developed these scorecards. One question for the school leaders, and specifically principals, was "What can you do differently to improve and/or to close the achievement gaps?" It was about taking responsibility, Garcia says. Schools had to include steps for improvement and the direction of where they wanted to end up. "You constantly analyze the data and self improve," Garcia says.

Also under the plan: Garcia pushed for a centralized curriculum, something San Francisco has not had for 10 years because schools operated autonomously, says Richard Carranza, deputy superintendent for instruction, innovation and social justice. As a result, students had different curricula depending on what neighborhood they lived in. "If you have a centralized curriculum, if we really believe in social justice, it's the district's responsibility to set the expectations for all kids," he says.

The new curriculum under development is based on the common core state standards that should be adopted by most states in coming months, Carranza adds.

  • It stresses teachers. The district partnered with the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education (NUA) and received funding to sustain proven professional development. NUA's Pedagogy of Confidence and Professional Development Model suggests that the teacher is the most important factor for high student achievement. The NUA trained, coached and modeled effective teaching for more than 325 teachers in 15 high schools.
  • Central office leaders and the school board have realigned systems, policies, structures and resources to support site level innovation. For example, Garcia says, Sheridan Elementary School reduced the achievement gap in part by moving away from the "deficit model." Instead of correcting students on their slang vocabulary, Garcia says teachers learned how to build on students' strengths and to use this as a vocabulary lesson on standard English.
  • Requiring as of this fall every high school student to take the state's 15 "A-G" courses, such as high-level math and science courses, which means they would be eligible to attend a school in the California State University system or the University of California system after graduation.

Even with all the positives of the plan, Garcia took heat from some members within the district and community for using a picture of rock legend Jimi Hendrix on the strategic plan's 51 pages when it was released in early 2009. He used Hendrix, who died of a drug overdose at age 27, as an analogy of how "different his music was and how it was a paradigm shift, just like our Beyond the Talk would be a paradigm shift in dealing with the achievement gap as the greatest civil rights issue of our time. Of course, I know about all the other stuff that came with Hendrix, but this was strictly about the music."

Some Results

Although it's still too early to pass judgment on the success of Garcia's leadership, the superintendent points out that last year the district saw the greatest annual growth in scores for black, Latino and Pacific Island students. Last year, black and Latino students showed the most growth ever on their test scores, more than any other group. Also, the district improved on the California Standards Test (CST) for the eighth consecutive year. About 66 percent of second- through seventh-grade students are proficient or advanced in math.

SFUSD remains the highest-performing large urban district in California, and the district's average is higher than the state's average. In addition, students are showing the highest growth in proficiency rates in English language arts since 2005. As compared to 2008, the district has almost tripled its increase in proficiency rates (more than 1 percent growth in 2008 compared to nearly 4 percent growth in 2009). In math (grades 2-7), 62 percent of the students are proficient or advanced, and the district improved at a higher rate as compared to 2008 (nearly 2 percent in 2008 compared to 3 percent in 2009).

Students who took the SAT Reasoning Test in 2008-2009 continued the trend of rising scores overall, achieving a 13-point increase in critical reading and a 4-point gain in math over the last five years. And AP class enrollment has increased— a 62 percent increase for Latino students and 41 percent increase for black students enrolled in AP courses.

Fighting the System

Despite the district's academic success, California's financial crisis is adversely affecting all districts in the state. When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stated recently that education is appropriately funded, Garcia responded sharply. "We are almost dead last in per-pupil funding," he said, at roughly $6,800 compared to other districts across the nation, he says.

Controversial statements and decisions such as these, including his use of Jimi Hendrix in the strategic plan, make Garcia well-loved by some and not so well-loved by others. "Some consider him to be controversial, and maybe he shouldn't be saying that the governor is lying to people, making the biggest cuts in education but then saying he supports education, but Carlos is telling the truth," says Deputy Superintendent Carranza.

Garcia makes comments that others wish they could make but are possibly too fearful of reaction, Carranza adds. "It's a complete breath of fresh air," he says. "I've never seen anyone like Carlos. His heart is in the right place, and he fights for the right reasons."

As a result of California's fiscal stance, the San Francisco district, along with eight other districts, filed a lawsuit in May against the state for failing to support adequate funding for students. Even with the state's issues, Garcia evenly spread out cuts over two years instead of creating drastic cuts in just one year, Kim says. "He and his staff are thoughtful about what cuts they would make that would have the least impact in the classroom," she says. "Because of the way California is right now, we will have cuts that will hurt our kids."

Garcia speaks with an elementary school student about what she is working on in class. His main mission is to help students of all races and backgrounds succeed in school and life.

Despite the state's money woes, Garcia is hopeful the district can recoup some of the lost money with federal Race to the Top funds, for which San Francisco and five other school districts in the state applied. SFUSD's teachers' union did not sign off on the plan in a memorandum of understanding, which was required under the application. "It does hurt our chances," Garcia says, but his office is working with the union to create a separate MOU.

Garcia still disagrees with U.S. Education Department officials about the four new turnaround models of change—close the school, open a charter school, use a transformation model or turn around—to fix the lowest-achieving schools in across the United States. "I think they should have left a model for totally new innovation, such as invent a totally new educational system," he says. "The reason I feel this way is that the research on the four models has shown only a 30 percent success rate." And Garcia adds that it takes three to five years to turn around a failing school.

He Can't Do It Alone

Despite Garcia's strong beliefs and occasional criticism of others and their policies, he still can get the job done with his leadership ability. Lisa Spinali, director of the San Francisco Education Fund, which in part provides teachers with volunteers and training, adds that Garcia commands respect to the education fund's cause among various groups in the community. "Carlos knows it's a big job [as superintendent] and he can't do it alone," Spinali says. "He is open and encouraging and very supportive of community-based organizations. He knows we are better together."

As far as Garcia's being a role model, Carranza says that working with Garcia is a "graduate course in leadership" every day. "It's everything you don't learn about— how you relate to people, how to empower people, and how to get people behind a vision and work with the business community," Carranza says.

"Carlos is, in my perception, the embodiment of the American dream," he adds. "Here is someone who is not supposed to be superintendent and not supposed to be the pillar of the community and not supposed to be doing what he's doing but because of the very system he is now leading is able to do what he does."